Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Death row defense continues for now

Current Inmates

Georgia's public defender council pays for the legal defense of 78 death penalty defendants statewide, including George Edenfield and his parents, David and Peggy Edenfield. The three are charged in the death of 6-year-old Christopher Michael Barrios Jr.

Last modified 7/30/2007 - 6:44 am
Originally created 073007

Death row defense continues for now

Program to assist poor inmates may run out of money by October.

BRUNSWICK - Budget shortfalls threatening Georgia's public defender council probably won't affect current death penalty cases in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit.

The statewide council expects to run out of money by October to pay for attorneys who represent poor people charged with crimes punishable by the death penalty.

Other funds needed to pay for defense investigators, expert witnesses such as psychologists and independent tests on potential evidence in death penalty cases also will run out at that time.

The council now pays for the defense of 78 death penalty defendants statewide. Those defendants include George Edenfield and his parents, David and Peggy Edenfield, who are charged with malice murder in the sex abuse slaying of 6-year-old Christopher Michael Barrios Jr. of Brunswick.

Separate pretrial hearings begin today for George Edenfield, 31, and David Edenfield, 58, before Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett in Brunswick.

In another high-profile Brunswick circuit death penalty case, the council is paying for the defense of Bobby Rex Stribling, 45, who is charged with felony murder in the killing of Judge Glenn Thomas Jr., who was the circuit's former district attorney.

There are no pending death penalty cases in the Waycross Judicial Circuit encompassing Ware, Bacon, Brantley, Charlton, Coffee and Pierce counties.

Chris Adams, director of the Georgia Capital Defender Office, declined comment Friday about the potential impact if additional funding isn't found.

Brunswick circuit Public Defender Grayson Lane didn't respond to two Times-Union telephone messages left at his office Wednesday and Friday seeking comment about whether the Edenfields and Stribling cases will be affected.

The Times-Union received no response to four e-mails and two telephone messages left for Sarah Haskin, defender council deputy director for administration, from Wednesday through Saturday. Haskin's secretary said late Friday that Haskin did not receive the e-mails.

Haskin told a legislative oversight committee Monday that the council may be able to offset the death penalty budget shortfall by taking money from other defender programs, according to The Associated Press. The council also plans to seek emergency midyear funding from the General Assembly, Haskin said.

A state law enacted July 1 limits the defender council to paying for no more than two attorneys in each death penalty case. The county where the crime occurred must supplement any additional attorneys' salaries, according to the law.

The council pays the attorneys about $95 an hour, according to The Associated Press. The rate varies for defense investigators and expert witnesses.

District Attorney Stephen Kelley of the Brunswick circuit says the defender council money woes will have little, if any, effect on the Edenfield, Stribling or other death penalty cases pending in his five-county district.

"Our judges and county commissioners know justice is important. I don't think they will let it [defense funding shortfalls] delay or otherwise impact these cases," Kelley told the Times-Union.

If the state defender funds run out, it likely will fall on each county to pick up the death penalty defense tab, he said.

In addition, it will take at least a year before the Edenfields, Stribling and other death penalty cases are ready for trial.

By then, the defense funding shortfalls may be resolved, Kelley said.

Meanwhile, Kelley will be among the attorneys and judges looking for ways to fix the state's problem-plagued indigent defense system.

This week, Kelley was appointed to represent the state's prosecutors on the newly created Joint Indigent Defense Study Committee.

The General Assembly has given the 16-member committee of attorneys, judges and legislators the task of figuring out how to best solve the budget shortfalls of the state's indigent defense system.

The committee also will look at whether a more efficient and more economical system can be created to protect the legal rights of poor people charged with crimes in Georgia.

It is scheduled to meet at the end of August to begin work, according to the defense council., (912) 264-0405

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